Messiah, Netflix’s series about an enigmatic man claiming to be God’s messenger, feels like an appropriate apocalyptic tale for the year 2020.
When you look into religious texts, certain signs of the end have already occurred. Whether it be the planet plummeting into despair, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in India and China, or the numerous families separated by ICE. The world feels desolate. Of course, this sentiment isn’t new. In 2012, there was a small group of people convinced the Mayan doomsday would occur. But nowadays Armageddon feels less like a movie, and more like an imminent threat.
So, when the trailer for Messiah dropped, many Muslim viewers — myself included — were quick to assume the show was portraying the Dajjal. In both Arabic and Christian mythology, Dajjal is said to be the anti-Christ who’ll descend onto Earth to cause havoc and destruction leading up to the apocalypse. The show’s main character, known as Al Masih, certainly seemed to be a false prophet in the show’s trailer, which literally asks whether the protagonist is a “con-man.”
In the first episode, Al Masih leads a group of Palestinians to Israel, where they are, unsurprisingly, not welcome. While there, he resurrects a young boy shot by Israeli police. When the boy returns to life, Al Masih gains a large – albeit skeptical – following. Next, without much explanation as to how, Al Masih lands in a tiny Texas town where he saves a Christian pastor’s daughter from a tornado. After this, a convoy of people – most ardently the pastor – begin to believe he is the second coming. Hundreds flock to bask in his presence. A reporter on the scene even scoffs, “It’s like Coachella went to Church.” But, CIA agent Eva Geller played by The Affair’s Michelle Monhagen, a recent widow who’s just suffered a miscarriage, is a non-believer, unconvinced by his purported miracles. She’s joined by Aviram, an Israeli agent whose violent past has hardened him. Despite the show’s efforts at humanizing the two, they ultimately play out as caricatures. They say things like, “you’re just as fucked up as me,” to one another. Still, their skepticism is valid. In a world where sly raconteurs and sleazy politicians constantly distort their motives, it’s impossible to take anyone on face value. But to their dismay, Al Masih’s popularity only grows.
That is until the prophet’s actions become more human like. When a mother of a cancer patient drags her dying daughter to on a cross-country road trip to be blessed by Al Masih’s presence, the savior agrees to sit with her in silence. Days later, the girl winds up dead — a direct result from missing her chemo treatments. Then, after a young boy’s dog gets trapped underneath tornado rubble, Al Masih appears on the scene, seemingly there to cure the injured animal. Instead however, he cocks a shot gun and puts the dog out of his misery, claiming he wasn’t meant to save it. These perceived failures start raising doubts. How can a messiah be so powerless? Soon, agent Geller starts to find holes in Al Masih’s story like his training as a magician, connection to a known terrorist, and his garrulous older brother. Eventually, the vigor in his believers begins to wane.
But when he’s accused of not being “God-like,” Al Masih’s response is not to convince anyone of his divinity, but to instead remind his followers he’s simply a messenger. His goal isn’t to draw people to worship him but consider another path. One away from despair and towards hope. The prophet’s biggest detractor in the show becomes Aviram. The Shin Bet agent’s cynicism is multipronged. He’s jaded from losing his mother at a young age, being cheated on by his wife and separated from his daughter, drowning himself into alcoholism. Throughout the entire show he’s at odds with Al Masih calling his miracles “parlor tricks.” But the all-knowing figure is able to extrapolate a deeper secret from Avi’s past.
“You’re unredeemable. That’s what you think. So you project your shame onto God.”
This shame stems from when Avi murdered an innocent child as retribution for his mother’s untimely death. In a chilling flashback, we’re taken to the exact moment where the young boy recites a prayer in Arabic begging for his life. But his supplications mean nothing. Aviram, believing the world is Godless, shoots the young boy point blank. It’s a decision that’s clearly filled every second of his life with emptiness.
But the messiah assures him, that his future doesn’t have to be bleak.
“Goodness is just a choice. Every moment is an opportunity to make a choice,” he says. “That is God’s greatest blessing, that in every moment we can create ourselves again.”
This concept of free will and autonomy becomes the backbone of the show and its most compelling argument. Sure, some have claimed, Messiah teeters on the edge of being too simplistic, reducing weighty themes like religion and politics into a black and white narrative. But in this day and age where we’ve become desensitized to all of the travesties going on around us, the show’s straightforward message of hoping for a better future – even when the world is literally burning – feels revolutionary. As Shannon Keating argued in her Buzzfeed essay, there is power in mustering up the courage to take care of ourselves and invest in our dreams even during the most arduous of times.
After Soleimani’s killing, the internet ran amok with memes about WW3. From Twitter posts using public figures like rapper Future as the butt of the joke to TikTok videos on dodging the draft, social feeds were filled with a conflicting light-heartedness given the circumstances. For some, these jokes were a slap in the face to the millions– notably Iranians and people of color – who’ll be directly impacted by Trump’s decision. Others however argued that these types of self-deprecating jokes are harmless – simply coping mechanisms to assuage our fears and anxieties about an increasingly fraught future. What’s the point of taking life seriously when we already know we’re doomed?
Yet, on a broad political scale, Messiah argues humanity can change for the better. In one of the show’s most interesting scenes, Al Masih is face to face with the president of the United States and has a proposition to guarantee a thousand years of world peace.
“Withdraw all American troops. From everywhere.” When the president tries to argue that America’s presence has been “a peacekeeping” measure, AL Masih hits him with receipts listing off massacres that occurred under the US’s watch: Abu Ghraib, M Lai, No Gun Ri, Azizabad and Haditha.
“Europeans drew lines on paper and called them borders. America has enforced those lines and given strength to brutal dictators,” Al Masih continues. It’s not a new thought, but to hear it stated so clearly on a mainstream Netflix show is refreshing. With the latest presidential debate focusing around foreign policy and revisiting the US’s costly decision to invade Iraq in 2002, Messiah’s political commentary is germane as ever. And rather than ignore his warnings, the president takes Al Masih’s caution to heart. After their meeting, the chief of staff asks for a Pentagon report analyzing a full US military withdrawal from Eastern Europe. It’s a move that seems implausible in the real world but imagine if we actually had politicians willing to reassess their foreign strategy rather than plunging us further into war and despair?
And the president isn’t the only to see the light. In the last episode – thanks to Al Masih’s supernatural guidance — Aviram finally atones for his sins. As the season closes, we’re left on a cliff-hanger, but for once, it seems like the Israeli agent may be able to move past his fatalistic tendencies and improve his life. As Al Masih says, “the world is about to begin again,” and it can be filled with prosperity and goodness if we just give it a chance.